Vatican Lawyer Clarifies Recent Supreme Court Decision

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

Contrary to what various media outlets are reporting, the Vatican’s U.S. lawyer says the Supreme Court decision handed down Monday that allows a lawsuit against the Holy See to move forward was not based on the merits of the case, but was merely a decision to allow the case to return to the lower courts.

The Catholic News Agency is reporting that U.S. Vatican attorney Jeffrey Lena is clarifying the meaning behind the ruling because various media sources are misreporting the facts.

The case involves a suit filed against the Vatican regarding the late Fr. Andrew Ronan, an Irish priest with a history of sexually abusing children who was transferred from Ireland to the U.S. and eventually to Portland, Oregon where he continued his abuse. The suit charges that Fr. Ronan was an employee of the Holy See, which means responsibility for the alleged sex abuse belongs to the Vatican.

 According to Lena, the “effect of the Supreme Court’s decision is to cause the case to return to the district court in Oregon, where the additional remaining defenses will be heard,” he told CNA. 

The plaintiff, he explained, “currently has one jurisdictional theory left. That theory is that the priest who committed the abuse was an ’employee’ of the Holy See.”

Lena is arguing that this is not true. “The Holy See does not pay the salary of the priest, or benefits of the priest, or exercise day-to-day control over the priest, and any of the other factors indicating the presence of an employment relationship.” 

In fact, Lena adds, Fr. Ronan’s very existence was unknown to the Holy See until after all the events in question.”

The question of whether or not Fr. Ronan was an employee of the Holy See, which is a key issue in the case, has not even been challenged yet, Lena says, and this is precisely what will be addressed in the lower courts.

He also criticized media coverage of the ruling that used the terms “Catholic Church” and “Holy See” interchangeably.

For instance, on Monday, the Agence France Presse (AFP) wrote that the lawsuit is a “landmark case that opens the way for the Catholic Church in the United States to be sued for a litany of child sex abuse cases.”

“It is the Holy See that is the defendant,” Lena explained to CNA. “The ‘Church’ does not enjoy sovereign immunity and has never asked for it. It is only the Holy See.”

One “should not be treating those as having the same meaning at all,” he said.
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